WASHINGTON — An ad hoc group of Las Vegas environmentalists, tribal, state and local leaders descended Thursday on Capitol Hill asking federal lawmakers to block an Air Force proposal to take 1.1 million acres of wildlife refuge for bombing and combat training.
The Nevada Test and Training Range is seeking to expand into the adjacent Desert National Wildlife Refuge, habitat for desert bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise, just north of Las Vegas.
The 2.9-million-acre bombing and training range is one of the most important in the United States, and the Air Force is seeking congressional approval to expand next year to accommodate more sophisticated equipment and fighter jets.
“You’ve got 3 million acres. What do you need with a desert wildlife refuge,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity, who led a group of 11 local officials to Washington to explain their opposition to the bombing range expansion.
The Nevada Legislature voted overwhelmingly in both chambers this year to oppose the expansion, said state Sen. Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas, who traveled to the nation’s capital to lobby federal lawmakers.
Scheible said the military proposal is not “terribly specific,” and fails to justify the taking of such a large amount of an intact ecosystem from a refuge that enjoys public use and support.
Seeking a balance
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., told the Review-Journal she met with Air Force officials from Nellis Air Force Base, as well as environmentalists and others opposed to the expansion last week while she was in the state.
“I am hopeful we can come to some sort of compromise” to balance the mission of the Air Force and national security with outdoor recreation and conservation, Cortez Masto said.
An environmental impact statement for military land withdrawal by the Nevada Test and Training Range provided by the Air Force states that the range must be modernized for advancing technological capabilities.
In addition, pilot training for fifth-generation aircraft like F-35 fighter jets, such as those used at Nellis, require increased battlespace to properly employ advanced electronics. The Air Force anticipates 50 percent of its combat fleet will consist of those aircraft in the next decade.
Despite the need, the expansion would sharply curtail habitat for bighorn sheep at the 1.6-million-acre refuge. The expansion would also ban activities such as bird watching, hiking, hunting and tribal use of ancestral lands.
“There are sacred mountains out there that they are trying to take away from us,” said Greg Anderson, the culture representative for the Moapa Band of Paiutes.
“These are areas critical to our people,” said Anderson, who explained the cultural bond between bighorn sheep and his tribe. “We honor those animals in a song and dance.”
The Air Force proposal would require about 115 miles of new fencing.
That would be detrimental to the herd of bighorn sheep, which would be cut off from mountain ranges in the refuge and training range, said Christy Smith, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worker.
“Bighorn sheep don’t jump fence, they go through it,” Smith said, citing her past experience working on the refuge.
Congress must renew the training range boundaries by November 2021. The language is expected to be included in the defense authorization bill next year.
Donnelly said the group of local leaders spoke with Senate and House lawmakers on the Armed Services and Natural Resources committees to educate them on impact the military expansion would have on Nevada.
“We want the renewal to be the status quo,” said Donnelly. “We’re trying to build support for our side of the issue.”